The opportunity to relax our aching bodies on the Evangelista was very much appreciated. It also gave us the chance to consult our Lonely Planet book in order to plot our next move upon out arrival in Puerto Montt. Unfortunately, realizing we were short on time and needing to move upward and onwards a bit quicker, we were forced to abandon the idea of spending time in the lake district around Bariloche. Although knowing it was more logical to make for the more northern destination of Santiago, it sorta broke our hearts a little to miss a destination we had looked forward to so much- and heard such good things about from friends whose opinions we very much trust.
After a grueling 14 hour bus ride we finally arrived in Santiago. It was late at night so instead of browsing the streets in search of the cheapest accommodation we made for the first hostel recommended in the ol' LP that was within our budget. "Santiago Adventure" proved to be exactly what we needed- although that wasn't very much at the time as all our little hearts desired was a reasonably comfortable bed.
We woke up the next morning to the usual continental breakfast found at nearly every hostel in Chile (bread, jam, instant coffee or tea, and fruit- if you are lucky). A couple from England was also having their breakfast, and we quizzed them anxiously about their travels throughout Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. They kindly obliged, advising us on places to stay in the aforementioned countries, as well as the must-sees and dos. Our new friends affirmed our initial impressions of Santiago, and suggested moving along as quickly as possible. We elected to spend the day touring the city, and to move on whenever we woke up the next morning.
We walked to the city center after a glorious and much needed shower (we hadn't bathed in nearly two days). One of the things we WERE excited to experience in Santiago was the "Cafe con Piernas", or, Coffee with Legs. As far as we know these establishments are unique to Santiago. Basically, scantily clad women strut around the room flirting with the men taking their "coffee breaks" from work. The cafe that was suggested in our guidebook was closed due to the construction going on in front of it so we b-lined it for the next one we saw. Now, it is our assumption that we managed to find one of the shadier establishments in all of Santiago. The girls were not at all attractive, some clearly overweight and bursting out of their MUCH too small bikinis. They grinded up on the businessmen who were cat-calling them, and we even witnesses a few phone numbers being exchanged. Our English friends also went to a Cafe con Piernas on the same day, and made the observation that the girls at their cafe were quite stunning, not showing very much, and interacted with the clientele very little. Had we somehow managed to walk into a brothel or borderline strip joint instead?! At any rate, it was a quick stop. We drank our coffee and Morgan quickly paid up. A few blocks later, Morgan realized she had been given the wrong change and hadn't noticed in her haste to leave the dodgy establishment. I don't think we will be going to a Cafe con Piernas again anytime soon, although it was quite a funny experience.
There isn't much in our walk around Santiago that is worth mentioning to be quite honest. I am sure that Santiago is quite lovely, and that if you spend more time there it is bound to reveal its true colors. However, perhaps due to our lack of time or the bad reviews we received from so many people, our time in Chile's capital was rather uneventful. That being said, we did enjoy a few tasty Sangrias at Bar National, loved watching the old men playing chess in Plaza de Armas, and marveled at the view overlooking Santiago and the Andean mountains that surround it from Cerro Santa Lucia. It was also interesting to be right next to the Presidential Palace where General Pinochet overthrew the socialist President Salvador Allende in a military coup d'etat in the 70s. However, perhaps this only interested me because I wrote a research paper on the subject…
Personally, the highlight for me would be the visit we paid to Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. A few years ago when I was applying to do a student exchange through my university, the latter was my first choice. At the time, I was very disappointed when informed that I had received my second choice instead- Universidad de las Americas in Puebla. It was a neat experience to be walking through the streets that pass through the campus I thought I would be attending. I had realized a long time ago how lucky I was that I hadn't been accepted, as I can't imagine not having attended UDLA and meeting all those people that are so important to be now. It was especially ironic that I should be meandering through the campus with Morgan, who I would never have met had I received my first choice two years ago. The trip to Santiago was worth it for me in the end- if only for the realization of how grateful I am for everything that has occurred in my life as a direct result of being rejected by that university in Santiago (can't you just hear Garth Brooks song Unanswered Prayers haha).
Anyways, we passed a rather uneventful night at the hostel chatting with our English friends and making dinner. We were both craving grill cheese and tomato soup so we indulged ourselves- and for quite cheap I might add. It seemed as if the hostel encouraged its guests to go to bed early, as whenever a room was left vacant the manager eagerly shut out the lights- almost standing in wait at some points with eyes hinting that she wanted the lights off. Either she was bent on saving on her next power bill, a staunch environmentalist, or some sort of strange nocturnal creature- I guess we will never really know. At any rate, we willingly submitted to the matron's desires and retired to our quarters.
The next morning we slept in, packed our belongings and headed for the bus terminal. We met an American gentleman that runs a hostel in Santiago and was busy diverting people from the bus company Tur Bus because of their efforts to monopolize the bus routes in Chile and squeeze out the "little guys". We were engaged in conversation with him for quite some time, as he explained the transportation situation in Chile, and recommended places to see in Isla Negra and Valparaiso. I think he was on the verge of offering us a partnership in his efforts to start up a lodge in Chile's Lake District when we kindly said goodbye and made for another bus terminal where smaller bus companies reside. A few minutes later we were on a bus to Isla Negra.
Isla Negra was the home of renowned Chilean poet Pablo Nerudo. It is a super chill little village with little to see other than the Vancouver Island-like beaches and the museum that pays tribute to Pablo Nerudo- which so happens to be right next to his "favorite house". We were dropped off on the side of the dusty main street, and immediately felt as if we had fallen off the face of the Earth. There was little activity at all, not to mention the complete absence of other tourists. I will admit that it entered my mind that we had been tricked into getting off at the wrong town, or at least that we had made a serious mistake by choosing to come to this sleepy town. We decided to laugh it off (as we tend to do), and try to make the best of it. After asking around we found our way down the road to the hostel our American friend in Santiago had recommended. The owner was not there, but a friend of hers was, who proceeded to call the owner at her work to ask if it was alright if we stayed. It proved to be an arduous process, as he couldn't get a hold of her on the phone and had to ride his motorcycle into town to talk to her. In the end everything worked out, however, the owner was none too friendly and seemed almost annoyed that we should want to stay at her hostel. She even tried to charge us more than the high season price without giving us access to the kitchen. Hello! You run a hostel! People come to stay in hostels! I know it isn't the high season but come on- be professional! Anyways, we ended up putting up our tent in the backyard and heading to town to take in the sights without another word to the owner.
We went for a quick bite to one of the surprisingly numerous cafes along the main boulevard. Morgan had a salad that consisted of 3 avocados- which sounds disgusting to most people but for someone who had been talking non-stop about guacamole and avocado for 2 months it was heaven, and I had the best shrimp pizza I may have ever had. We passed by the Pablo Nerudo museum, but being confronted with an entry fee of US$4 decided it wasn't important enough to two poor students. We went and had US$10 worth of beer instead. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking along the beach, taking pictures of the beautiful scenery and laughing at how ridiculous it was that we ended up in Isla Negra- after all, it draws mostly Chilean tourists who adore Pablo Nerudo. We finished the day watching the sunset with a flock of Pelicans, and then watched a futbol match while eating Super Panchos (hot dogs with all the fixings- including guacamole) with all the old men in town.
Valparaiso is the cultural capital of Chile and was my highlight for this leg of our journey. It is a UNESCO World heritage sight loved by most bohemian travelers for its colorful buildings, congested streets, and strange ascensores (elevators) that connect the residential areas to the city center below. We arrived in the early afternoon and found a quaint little hostel a block over from the bus terminal. Residencial Veracruz appealed to us from the get-go because it was cheap, had access to the kitchen, and was run by an extremely accommodating older woman. She got us all set up in our room and then proceeded to help us plan out the rest of our stay in Valpo. On her advice we were very much on our guard against theft throughout our stay in Valparaiso. Apparently thieves have come up with some very elaborate schemes in that part of the world- for example, one thief will walk by you and pretend to spill something on you, and while helping clean you off another thief takes your belonging from your pockets. Very creative.
We had a nap that afternoon and then headed to the famous local market. We had heard that you could eat very cheaply in the Market and there is no denying that. Above the market are a bunch of restaurants, all vying for your business. It is extremely competitive, as the waiters shove their menus in your face and try to entice you with their cheap prices. Somewhat overwhelmed with the choices we decided on the restaurant with the nicest display. We both had the "almuerzo del dia", Morgan choosing the chicken while I had the most enormous piece of fish I have ever seen. With belts bursting we headed down the flight of stairs to buy groceries for dinner- which proved to be difficult to stomach because of how full we were. We spend the rest of the day uploading pictures and updating the blog.
That night we cooked an amazing pasta dinner while chatting to an interesting guy from Boston who had spent a lot of time in Mexico. Clearly we talked to him for quite some time about our beloved Me-hi-co.
The next day we walked around Valpo taking in the sights. Although we weren't blessed with a very sunny day, we still were able to appreciate the beauty of the city. It's hard to explain how steep streets lined with colorful building and stinky fish ports are beautiful- but it really is a must see in Chile as far as I am concerned. I now understand why many people decided to go to Valparaiso to take Spanish classes. Anyways, we went up and down a few of the ascensors for which the town is famous for, and browsed various markets. That night we boarded a bus to Mendoza very glad we had made time to see Valparaiso.
The overnight bus to Mendoza was quite an experience. In the middle of the night I woke up to the sight of a near blizzard outside and thought I must be dreaming. I shook Morgan awake so she could clarify what I was seeing. She confirmed that indeed we were in a snowstorm. After a bit of thought it all made sense- we should have known that in order to get to Mendoza we would be crossing over the Andes. The border crossing between Argentina and Chile at this junction is at the very peak of one part of the Andes. Therefore, we had to get off the bus in the freezing cold to pass through immigration and customs wearing only our jeans and t-shirts. It was somewhat surreal.
We arrived in Mendoza very early in the morning and caught a cab to the city center. On the drive in Morgan commented that, based on what she could see of the city, she thought we were really going to love Mendoza. O how I wish she would have been right.
Above and beyond all the good reviews we had received from other people, we were really excited to be in Mendoza because we made it there just in time for the wine festival. In fact, we had made it a priority to be there for the wine festival. However, we neglected to take into consideration the thousands of other people who had the exact same idea- and had booked accommodations in advance. As a result, not a single hostel or cheap hotel in town had any rooms left for us as we dragged ourselves from street to street carrying our heavy packs. In the end, we had to take another cab to the outskirts of town and settle for a campsite. We set up our tent and napped until noon.
We had gone to sleep somewhat defeated at not having found accommodation in town, but we awoke from our siesta in better spirits. After a quick shower we headed into town to check out the festivities- and to get some lunch. We made a few wrong decisions on where to go for food and ended up somehow walking around for nearly 2 hours. By this time we were already in somewhat sour moods, which were only worsened by the fact that we had missed most of the festivities. The parade and all the hoopla that surrounds it had taken place in the morning while we were sleeping and the next event, the crowning of the "Wine Princess", would not be until later in the evening. Although disappointed by this realization we decided to make the best of the day by doing some wine tastings and browsing the markets. The markets were fun for awhile but for some reason there wasn't very much to be had. And, much to our disappointment there weren't hardly any wine tastings within the city. Apparently you had to go outside the city limits to the actual wineries to do that. I guess perhaps we expected too much of the wine festival and anticipated streets lined with people, vendors selling all kinds of goods, and cheap wine flowing everywhere we looked. This vision was definitely not what we encountered in Mendoza- the apparent wine capital of Argentina.
All that being said, we did do one decent wine tour in a boutique winery, and had a nice steak dinner. The steak unfortunately was not accompanied by friendly service… I found everyone in Mendoza to be quite smug and rude to be honest. At night we followed the hoards of people heading for the hills to watch the crowning of the wine princess. We didn't stay long enough to watch the actual crowning… our bottle of wine had run dry and the musical production that preceded the ceremony was super boring- despite all the obvious effort that was put into it. Therefore, sick of standing on a filthy hill hanging onto a chain-link fence, we elected to eat a few choripans (sausage in a bun), grab a cab, and head back to our cozy tent. While getting ready for bed we joined a group of Argentineans watching the crowning of the princess on t.v. For some reason they read out every single vote- of which there are nearly 300. It was apparent after 40 some odd votes had been read who was going to win so we went to bed. From the tent we would hear them calling out the votes for about an hour- TuPUNgato! TupunGAto! TUpungato! TupungaTO! They were clearly running out of ways to say the region of Mendoza that she was representing… it was painful to watch how many times the young girl had to step forwards to wave and acknowledge her fans. She clearly vowed to promote world peace with her new title…
The next day we wanted to head to Salta as quickly as we could. We couldn't get a bus until 8:00pm that evening so we spent another day killing time around Mendoza. Morgan got the "traza" (a sort of braid) that she had been wanting for quite some time, and we finally got to eat the Indian food we had been craving. We arrived at the bus terminal early for our bus- or so we thought. When we asked what platform we needed to go to the clerk informed us that the bus had left and that it was in fact nearly 9:00pm. The whole time we were in Mendoza we had been running on the wrong time! Unfortunately, we had to buy a whole other ticket for the next bus to Salta, which wasn't leaving until the following afternoon. We had paid the price of not being on our toes all the time and suffered the consequences. That night we found a cheap hotel right next to the bus terminal and passed out, exhausted from our own stupidity. I suppose something like that was bound to happen at some point- it just really sucked when it did!
The next morning we were finally on a bus to Salta- and we only had to pay for it twice! The ride was more or less uneventful (and comfortable), save the poor old man that was sitting next to us who had a case of chronic hiccups. We felt so sorry for the old gentlemen, who seemed so very tired, weary and frustrated, and his sleep seeming to be just as disturbed by the loud abrubt noises coming from his throat as we were. I hope he got over that horrible case of the hiccups eventually because I for one can vouch for the fact that he didn't get one moments break from them the entire 16 hour bus ride! Neither did I for that matter...
I am sure that Mendoza is a great place- so many people can't be wrong in their recommendations. It was extremely disappointing that our own experience of it was so terrible. That being said, much of blame can be directly placed on us, as so many errors on our part played a huge role in tainting our experience. As has become very apparent to us on this trip, we know we will be back to South America- and Mendoza tops the list of places we want to visit- again. It deserves another chance.